Surfers help rescue kiteboarder at Grand Haven State Park

Jake Mitchell said he was having a good time kiteboarding on Lake Michigan when “the wind just shut down.”
Becky Vargo
Sep 4, 2014


There wasn’t enough wind to get the kite back into the air, so the Grand Haven man started working his way back to shore.

“Luckily he knows what he’s doing,” said his friend, Tucker VanTol, who rushed down the beach to help him. “He made it most of the way by himself.”

People at the Grand Haven State Park beach saw Mitchell struggling through the large waves and called 911 shortly before noon Thursday.

“It was rough going out there,” Mitchell admitted. “There’s definitely a rip current.”

A couple of surfers attracted to the shore by the big waves helped Mitchell back to solid ground.

“He was already almost back to shore when we got here,” said park employee Paul Vargo.

Officers from the Grand Haven Department of Public Safety also responded, but Mitchell was back on shore before they put anybody into the water.

The Coast Guard was alerted, but turned back when officials realized the kiteboarder was safe.

Mitchell said he and VanTol brought their kite boards to the beach after the storm front went through the area.

They were both disgruntled that the wind died down so quick.

Vargo said conditions in Lake Michigan were definitely red flag with rip currents.

“You can see it where the water looks like it’s dirty,” he said.



Always glad to see the surfers get some recognition for the many rough water rescues they have made on our lakefront over the years. Since the 1970s surfers have been awarded three Congressional Medals, one Carnegie Award and other types of recognition for their heroism, but the vast majority of surfer rescues were never reported, much less recognized. As a group, their only parallel in local history is the U.S. Life Saving Service, which eventually evolved into the U.S. Coast Guard

It is no wonder that the surfboard is the number one tool for surf rescue teams worldwide. They are very portable, fast moving in the water and provide good flotation. Equally important are the rough water skills the surfer can bring to bear. They have the ability to paddle and duck dive through, around, under and over waves. They know the impact zones and shoulder area like nobody else. They understand the movement,speed and velocity of the waves and the raw physics of what can and cannot be done to bring victims safely to shore. They make very complex and dangerous rescues look easy.

However, the rescue skills and equipment of the surfer would be meaningless if they could not respond in a timely fashion. More often than not, they are the first effective responders for rough water rescues, because they are usually there doing what they love to do, ride waves. Official rescue agencies need precious minutes to arrive on the scene and deploy their resources. Surfers often need only seconds.

The keyword here is 'effective responders.' In many situations off the pier and beaches, nearby responding pedestrians and swimmers themselves become the victims and are lost, while the original victims survive. Official response teams do not have the skills and equipment to make many of the rescues and sometimes have to be rescued by surfers themselves. During the great surf rescue of 1975, the night the mighty Edmund Fitzgerald went down, the police, fire department and park guards had to just stand there and watch for an hour and a half while the surfers made the rescue. Even the Coast Guard rescue craft had to turn around and go back to station.

Napoleon once said that there are really no great men, but only great circumstances that ordinary men aspire to. Our surfers fit that bill and we owe them our recognition and gratitude.


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